Merrill Wien

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Merrill Wien

Noel Merrill Wien was born April 4, 1930, in Virginia, Minn. His father, Noel Wien, was born in Lake Nebagamon, Wisc., went to Alaska in 1924, was the first to fly the 350-mile route from Anchorage to Fairbanks, the first pilot of a passenger flight from Seattle to Fairbanks, and the first pilot to fly over and beyond the Arctic Circle, and many other Alaskan firsts. (Read more in Ira Harkey's biography.) The Wiens lived about a block from the Fairbanks airport -- Weeks Field -- and Merrill worked at his father's Profile hangar to earn money for flying lessons. He logged a lot of right- and front-seat time with his father, soloed on his 16th birthday, and earned his commercial and instrument ratings at 19. In May 1950 he began flying co-pilot on DC-3s and bush planes for Wien Airlines. Later that year he left college and began flying DC-4s for Pan Am based in Seattle. He enlisted in the Air Force, and graduated from pilot training just as the Korean War was wrapping up. He spent the last six months in Air Rescue Squadron flying Grumman SA-16 Albatross based at Ladd Field in Fairbanks, Alaska, and was released from active duty in September 1956.

After the Air Force, he returned to flying for Wien Airlines as a DC-3 captain, and also logged time in the C-46, DC-4, 749 Constellation, Fairchild F-27, Boeing 737 and 727. Merrill also flew the Wien bush fleet -- Cessna 185, 195, Twin Beech, and the Pilatus Porter -- and spent a summer as pilot for Lowell Thomas Sr. while he researched "High Adventure." (Later, Lowell Jr. would move to Alaska to write, film documentaries and become Lt. Governor of Alaska.) In 1990 Merrill retired from scheduled airline flying and spent two years in Alaska flying C-46s full of cargo around the state. His C-46 time attracted NDPER Randy Sohn, which led to flying "Fifi" -- the only flying Boeing B-29. Merrill and his wife Barbara live on Orcas Island in Puget Sound, Wash., where he works as the Executive Director of Flight Operations for the Heritage Flight Museum, and flies a Broussard -- a French version of a Beaver -- and a Stearman.


Is it true you were going to airshows as a baby?

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  The Wiens like to start 'em young...
I was born in Minnesota while my folks were vacationing there. When I was six weeks old, I rode around the states in a new 1929 Stinson with my dad and mother, visiting air shows throughout the country in a wicker clothes basket. Then my dad and his younger brother Sig flew the airplane back to Alaska and my mother and I took a train to Seattle and a steamship to Alaska.

Tell us about growing up.

We lived about a block from Weeks Field -- the Fairbanks airport -- and I spent a lot of time there. As soon I was old enough to work at the Wien hangar I started saving money for flying lessons, and I flew with my dad quite a bit when he had room in the airplane. When I was about eight I was in the right seat of the Trimotor Ford and I thought I was going to get my chance to take it off. Dad had to use his left hand on the throttles and his right hand on the Johnson bar brake handle between the seats. The control wheel was unattended so I grabbed it. Everything was going fine until he no longer needed the brakes for directional control, and when he pushed the wheel forward to get the tail up it ripped out of my hands. I was very disappointed. When I was about ten he rented a J-3 and let me fly. When the airplane left the ground I was thrilled that I had made the takeoff. Dad had to grab the controls right after takeoff but I did get it into the air all by myself -- I think. When it came time for me to land, the ground just came up and slammed into the airplane something awful.

When did you solo?

My folks moved to Seattle for a couple of years and I soloed on my 16th birthday at Boeing Field. I think my mother fainted. Both my sons soloed on their 16th birthday also so I knew then how my mother felt when I soloed. I received my commercial and instrument ratings at 19. While working on my instrument rating at Boeing Field, I took 20 hours of Link training time from the legendary Harry Cramer, who gave recurrent Link training to Boeing pilots, West Coast Airlines pilots, non-sched pilots and student pilots. Later, when I was released from the Air Force, Wien Airlines bought Harry's Link and I operated it for the recurrent training for Wien pilots.

How did you get from Wien to Pam Am to the Air Force in such a hurry?

In May of 1950 I was able to start flying for Wien Airlines from Weeks Field. I was co-pilot on the DC-3 and flew the bush planes also -- Cessna 170, 195 and Noorduyn Norseman. That winter I was going to the University of Alaska and flying part time for the airline. One of Pan Am's pilots, Herm Joslyn, had flown for my dad and mentioned my name to their chief pilot Ralph Savory. I didn't want to abandon my dad's airline but I sure was excited about flying Pan Am's DC-4s. At the time I was the youngest pilot Pan Am had ever hired.

I was concerned about loosing my student draft deferment if I quit college. Ralph Savory said he was quite certain that they could get me a deferment because at that time the airlines were crucial to the Korean war effort. About six months later I received my draft notice but Pan Am was not able to get a deferment, so the Army allowed me to enlist in the Air Force instead. I wanted to fly.

It turned out that I was not eligible for cadets since I had not completed two years of college. I would have if I had not quit two weeks before the end of my second semester at the University of Alaska. I was devastated. I enlisted at Ladd Field near Fairbanks, which is now an Army base. For several months I cleaned latrines, did KP duty and was a mail clerk. They really didn't know what to do with me so they assigned me to infantry basic training at Fort Richardson, Alaska. It was closer than sending me to Biloxi, Miss., for Air Force basic training.

Back in Seattle, Harry Cramer had talked me into getting my Link trainer instructor rating and I trained some of his instrument students. The head sergeant at Ladd was able to get me transferred to his department, and my civilian Link experience was very helpful to his department. I tried very hard to be a good soldier and for three weeks out of six, I was soldier of the week and the top rifle scorer in my class. That helped me get letters of recommendation for cadets. After about a year they lowered the requirements for cadet training to a high school education, and I was selected for training in Class 53 Fox.

Alaska to Mississippi would have been hot enough, but you wound up in the desert.

I reported to Marana Air Base near Tucson and I didn't think I would survive the 112-degree heat. One of the forms I filled out asked if I had any previous flying time and I said yes. BIG MISTAKE. Throughout primary flight training I was constantly picked on by the upper classmen. "So you think you know how to fly an airplane, Wien. Let's see you fly some traffic patterns right here." The Air Force wanted you to learn the Air Force way and didn't want to see any bad habits, and my primary flight training at Marana was some of the best pilot training I have ever received.

From Marana, I reported to Reese AFB in Texas for basic training in T-28s and B-25s and graduated as a Second Lieutenant in September 1953, just after the end of the Korean War. I was originally scheduled to go to Korea in B-26s -- which used to be the A-26. I was then assigned to Charleston, S.C., in Troop Carrier flying C-119s. I have since given type rating rides and proficiency checks in some of the same B-25s that I flew in training at Reese in 1953.

I soon found myself a C-119 aircraft commander, and had my closest calls flying the C-119. We did a lot of formation -- probably half of my 2,000 hours in the 119 were in formation and a great deal of that was at night. In those days the formations in large aircraft were flown as if they were fighters. V of Vs, nine-ship squadron formation and as many as 36-ship formations day and night. One night we managed to get 18 ships head on into another 18 ship formation. Another time on a night join-up the third element went right through the first and second element. I was flying number-two ship in the third element and the ships in the first element went right through our element between me and the number-three ship. I don't know how we kept from hitting.

The one time I knew I was going to die, I was involved in a top secret mission snatching heavy objects out of the sky that came down from high altitude balloons. During training I was the instructor pilot training someone almost twice my age. We got a cable wrapped around the elevator. Only because I totally lost control of the airplane and we ended up partially on our back were we able to gain control when the cable finally snapped. Very often I think that every day I am alive is a bonus day. I lost many of my fellow pilots in the squadron -- including my roommate -- and I began to realize that I could die, too.

My last six months in the squadron we were based at Kodiak, Alaska. On my last flight in the C-119, flying from Kodiak to Adak, I experienced the worst turbulence I have ever experienced. We flew through a rotor and the airplane was uncontrollable. We could not focus on the instruments and the controls were whipped out of our hands. I wouldn't have thought that a C-119 could have taken that much punishment. Another very hairy flight was from Adak to Misawa, Japan. With 50-knot headwinds and almost out of gas, we lost all our transmission capability due to a static explosion which resulted in a fire in the electronics deck. We were able to do a GCA listening on the VOR receiver to 100 feet and 1/4-mile viz -- almost out of gas. I was beat after 14 hours of flight time. I spent my last six months in the Air Force flying Air Rescue Grumman Albatross at Ladd Field, Fairbanks and was released from active duty in September, 1956.

While I was still in the Air Force I was able to check out as Captain in the Wien Airlines DC-3 and fly trips when I wasn't on alert. I was very happy to be out of the service but would not trade the experience for anything. When I quit school to go to Pan American, I got six months leave of absence from Wien Airlines to work for Pan American. Before that was up I was in the service so they gave me a military leave of absence, as did Pan American, so I had my pick of airlines when I was released from the Air Force. I continued my college education and stayed with Wien Alaska Airlines and have never regretted that decision.

What airplanes did you fly at Wien?

I flew the DC-3, C-46, DC-4, 749 Constellation, Fairchild F-27, Boeing 737 and 727 and the bush-type airplanes like the Cessna 185, 195, Twin Beech, and Pilatus Porter. For awhile the C-46 was our mainline passenger airliner, equivalent to FAR part 121 today. In order to do this the airplane was modified and certificated for Transport Category operation.

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  Lowell Thomas, Jr. and Merrill at Camp Denali
I did some glacier flying in the Brooks Range and on the Kahiltna Glacier on Mt. McKinley. In 1957 Wien Airlines had a contract to provide support for a scientific team on the McCall Glacier in the Brooks Range south of Barter Island in Northeast Alaska. This was an International Geophysics Year contribution to science and the team was on the glacier for about 18 months at the 8,000-foot level. We used Cessna 180s on wheel skis.

I had a Cessna 180 of my own and did some flying on Mt. McKinley for climbing parties. In 1958, Lowell Thomas Sr. asked Bernt Balchen -- a famous arctic pilot and explorer who flew Byrd across the south pole -- who would be a good Alaska pilot to support their two months exploration in Alaska for the High Adventure series they were doing around the world. Balchen said "Merrill Wien," so the Wien chief pilot took me off the big planes and into a new Cessna 180 for a very interesting summer.

Lowell Sr. was a great man and was a good influence for me. Later Lowell Thomas Jr. moved to Alaska from New Jersey and wrote more books, filmed documentaries, and became Lt. Governor of Alaska. He also bought Talkeetna Air Service after the legendary Don Sheldon -- Wager with the Wind is the story of his flying career -- died of cancer. Lowell Thomas Jr. went on to be one of the finest Glacier pilots in Alaska, never scratching an airplane and making many mountain rescues at the 14,200-foot level on Mt McKinley. After retiring from airline flying I spent several summers filling in for Lowell Jr. flying his turbine Cessna 207 on sight seeing flights around Mt. McKinley.

In 1958, while flying for the High Adventure filming, I met the legendary glacier scientist Dr. Maynard Miller on the Juneau Ice Cap and for a few years after did Juneau Ice Cap flying for his program from the University of Idaho while he was training students of the glacier. Mountain flying and glacier flying is very exhilarating and safe after learning some basic dos and don'ts.

I think most lower-48ers think Beavers and Otters as the ultimate bush airplanes. Are we wrong?

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  On the river ice at Beaver, Alaska, 1950

The Beaver is a great airplane. The only time I flew the Otter was when I did the initial flight test of the twin pack [Pratt & Whitney] PT-6 installation in a single engine Otter for Joe Soloy. The Beaver really shines on floats. I don't think it is as widely used by air-taxi operators on wheels and skis as are other airplanes, like the Cessna series, primarily due to the slow speed of the Beaver. The Cessna 180, 185, 206 and 207 are very popular on wheels with air-taxi operators, and the 180 and 185 are also good on floats. The 206 is okay on floats and it does have more cabin space. The Soloy Allison turboprop conversion makes the 206 and 207 a wonderful airplane and I would love to have a turbine 206 on amphibs.

I've flown the Beaver off and on over the years and I occasionally fly one here at Orcas Island, Wash. I'm always impressed with the performance and it's a great airplane. I presently own an Avions Max Holste -- Broussard model 1521 -- which is the French version of a Beaver. It can only be licensed experimental exhibition in this country. It looks like a Beaver except it has two rudders, like a B-25. The Broussard has a shorter wing and wider chord than the Beaver and doesn't need flaps for climb and does quite well on takeoff with no flap -- however it does not perform as well as the Beaver. The Pilatus Porter does very well on takeoff without flaps and does not need flaps during climb. Someone has designed and certified a new wing for the Beaver and I'm told it makes a world of difference. The Beaver gets its performance from the flaps, and improper use of the flaps has caused quite a few Beaver accidents.

The first glacier landing in Alaska was made by Joe Crosson in the early '30s on the Muldrow Glacier on Mt. McKinley. Then Bob Reeve did quite a bit of flying off the mud flats in Valdez to glaciers. When I started doing glacier flying in 1957, I was surprised that others would only use the Super Cub, thinking that a Cessna 180 was too big for ground handling. This really limited the loads to the glacier and required many more trips. If Joe Crosson could do it in a Fairchild 71 in 1932, then why not a 180? After my first few trips in the Super Cub, I switched to the 180. The customers were very happy. A DC-3 on skis would do fine on the larger glaciers. During the '50s Kenmore Air Harbor made many successful glacier landings with the Norseman and Beaver on floats, Lowell Thomas likes the supercharged Helio Courier, and these days most of the flying is with Cessna 185s.

Tell us about your trips to the ice islands at the North Pole.

During the mid '60s Wien Airlines was contracted to fly support for the Navy's program through Arctic Research Laboratories based at Point Barrow, and we airlifted supplies, equipment and personnel to T-3 and Arlis II. Ice islands were formed from the undergrowth of ice coming from the glaciers in northern Canada from the Elsmere Island glaciers. From the surface of the packed ice they are hard to find because most of the ice is under water. Average size was about three miles by five miles and deep enough to not be affected by the surrounding pack ice, allowing some permanent scientific stations to be constructed.

T-3 was about 600 miles north and Arlis II was about 1200 miles north of Point Barrow -- about 80 miles from the Pole. We made about 65 trips in the DC-4 and I think I made about 10 of those. Summer support was restricted to air drops only when it was daylight 24 hours a day and the ice and snow were soft and melting. In the winter it was dark 24 hours a day. Landing in pitch dark with no surrounding lights and most of the flares bowing out was a real challenge.

What happened to Wein Airlines?

In about 1968 Wien Airlines merged with Northern Consolidated Airlines at the beginning of the Jet Age for the two airlines. I was really looking forward to flying jets but it's the piston era that I have my fondest memories. Wien Air Alaska, as it was called later, was bought by a corporate raider on a leveraged buyout and was liquidated for about twice what the stock was selling for. The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 made this possible. Then Lorenzo and others went on the rampage. Now there are stopgap regulations preventing this rape of the airline industry from happening again.

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  Merrill and Richard Wien celebrate the 75th anniversary of their father's first flight from Anchorage to Fairbanks

After Wien was shut down I went to work for Total Air flying Lockheed 1011s all over the world for three years until I turned 60, and that was some of the most stressful flying in my career. After that I flew C-46s again for Everts Air Fuel -- founded by Cliff Everts -- in Alaska hauling bulk fuel oil in to the outlying villages which weren't accessible by road. I learned how to land a fully loaded C-46 into 2,500-foot fields, once a 2,000-foot field. Although I had about 3,500 hours C-46 time with Wien, it wasn't into 2,000-foot airports. We did land on some small lakes during the winter months hauling supplies for the geophysical teams on the North Slope. Deep snow shortened the landing roll if it wasn't glare ice. Cliff Everts and I flew together at Wien for many years and he was a very senior pilot for Wien. I was a gas boy when he was flying the bush planes in the '40s.

In about 1959, my brother Richard, a fellow Wien Pilot Doug Millard, a Wien mechanic named Stan Halverson and myself started a company with two B-25s on contract to the BLM doing forest firefighting dropping borate on the fires. About that time, the Hiller factory brought a Hiller 12E to Alaska in hopes of finding some new operators. We took the bait. I was thrilled with my first helicopter ride and I convinced my brother that we had to get involved in helicopters. Later there were times when we thought we had made a mistake. We began to grow and acquired more helicopters and continued a growing business with the helicopters. Our company was called Merric Inc. and later Merric Helicopters. When we acquired our first helicopter from Hiller, part of the deal was that Hiller would train one of us to get a helicopter rating at the Hiller factory in Palo Alto, Calif. I received some very fine training from several of the Hiller test pilots that could do anything with the helicopter. In the early stages of operation, I flew several hundred hours and had a few close calls. One time was with an engine failure but managed to autorotate without damaging the helicopter. Another time I had tail rotor failure and spun around a couple of times as I was lifting off a gravel bar with a full load. I knocked the pogo stick off as I corkscrewed onto the gravel bar.

During the big flood at Fairbanks in 1957, brother Richard, Joe Soloy and I flew dawn to dark for about five days rescuing people from rooftops and delivering food. I pulled an elderly woman out of the river after an overloaded airboat capsized. My brother and I lived on a hill north of town and we took in about 40 or 50 friends in each house for the duration of high water. Joe Soloy joined us as manager when we could not give it proper support part time from our employment with Wien Airlines. During this time we started on a program to gain certification for the Hiller E models for the installation of the Allison turbine engines. The company was growing fast and required year-round activity to support the geophysical exploration on the north slope in the winter time. Joe did not want to live in Fairbanks year-round so we made a friendly split and Joe left with the conversion work that was done to that point and went on to successfully convert many Hillers, Bells and later the Cessna series aircraft. Brother Richard made the decision then to take over the management of Merric full time, resigning as chief bush pilot for Wien Airlines. It turned out to be a good decision for Richard and Merric as well as the stockholders. Merric eventually was sold to Rowan Drilling and merged into ERA Helicopters and Richard managed the northern division for many years. He is now in the flooring business and is on many company boards, including Alaska Airlines and his business and civic knowledge is much in demand. Richard flies a Grumman Widgeon and a Cessna 180 on floats.

Did you use Soloy's Allison conversion on the piston Hillers?

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  Merrill and Noel Wien catch their limit
Yes, he converted many Hiller 12-Es and many Bell 47s, and eventually he developed the Soloy Alison C-20 power package for several Cessna series aircraft. The gearbox on this installation was well engineered and trouble-free. I worked for Joe off and on after retiring, demonstrating aircraft and doing some flight test flying for certification. He developed the dual pack for the Allison and it was installed and certificated in the Bell Long Ranger. I did some of the flight test flying for certification on the helicopter and as I mentioned earlier, the dual pack PT-6 in the Otter and later the Caravan. The Caravan was stretched and strengthened to handle the dual pack.

While we're on the subject, I would like to give you my opinion of adapting two engines to one propeller. Bill Lear was one of the first to try this in the Learfan and he certainly was a visionary. Their prototype had many problems. The Soloy Corporation engineered a very strong gearbox, in fact, actually three separate gearboxes. There seems to be a mind-set to have one engine on each wing. They say that you might as well be flying with one engine as long as you still have one propeller. Well, what if you engineer the gearboxes to be bulletproof and virtually fail-safe? The FAA has certified this as a twin-engine aircraft as it relates to commercial passenger IFR.

There have been so many accidents involving mishandling after losing an engine on takeoff. If there ever were a common failure that would cause a complete power loss with a Soloy Dual Pack, it would certainly not be as common as engine-out accidents in conventional twins. That boils down to the fact that this configuration is safer and more efficient. When I was demonstrating the Otter to Cessna and Beech pilots in Wichita, the Beech pilot asked to see how it would handle with an engine out on takeoff. I said, "Well, how about if we just take off with one engine." He said that that answered his question. Centerline thrust does not require the extensive training that a conventional twin does and the performance loss is not as great because there is no big deflection of control surfaces that cause increased drag. There are no immediate action items necessary when loosing an engine and therefore there is not the danger of shutting down the other engine by pulling the wrong lever in haste, and you can give full concentration to flying the airplane. The benefits go on and on. Any single-engine pilot can fly it. I firmly believe that we would see a reduction in multi-engine accidents and this concept will eventually prevail.

How did you get involved with CAF?

I learned that the Southern California Wing of the Confederate Air Force badly needed some C-46 experience. Next thing I knew I was their C-46 chief pilot and instructor. Then I heard that the B-29 squadron was short on qualified four-engine pilots. Next thing I knew I was a B-29 and B-24 pilot. Randy Sohn, who I learned a great deal from, had a lot to do with this. I first met Randy when I was at one of the Midland Airshos. Vern Thorp, another CAF C-46 check pilot, asked me to give another C-46 pilot from the other CAF C-46 -- Tinker Bell -- a checkride when he found out that I was an FAA designee for the C-46. I told him that I was FAA-qualified to give the checkride but not with the CAF. He said go ahead any way and I will fix it with the CAF. He then conned his good friend Randy Sohn into flying with me and retroactively approving me as a CAF check pilot. Randy was not happy about all this but showed up the next morning early when he was supposed to be going home. I did not know who Randy was and I asked him if he had any tailwheel experience. He said he did. He sure did. He played the dumb-pilot routine, putting down too much flap on a simulated single engine landing and trying to run the airplane off the taxiway while I was absorbed with the after-landing checklist. I finally figured out that this was intentional. Randy apparently was satisfied that I was qualified to be a CAF check pilot and this opened up some opportunities for me. Later, Randy asked me to join the ranks of NDPERs. My association with the CAF has not only been a great opportunity to fly and be rated in many famous and rare airplanes, but also and opportunity to meet some of the finest people I have ever known. It has been a wonderful experience.

How has Capstone changed flying in Alaska?

I don't know much about Capstone. Right now the government is paying to put it in some of the 135 operators' aircraft. I believe that in order to see other traffic, the other airplanes have to have the unit also. I think one of the concerns is that the unit may be required someday for all aircraft and that would be very expensive and maybe the benefit is not worth the expense. The biggest problem from a safety standpoint is the weather. Whiteout in the winter is like flying blind close to the ground and many areas do not have trees for contrast. This is somewhat like landing on a glacier without direct sunlight. They may be reporting good visibility -- if there was anything out there to see -- and a good ceiling. You might say, then why not do everything IFR? Most of the villages do not have an IFR approach. I'm not comfortable with single-pilot, single-engine IFR for commercial operators. To operate safely in these conditions requires experience and good judgment. The problem is generally these pilots are low-time pilots who recently got their tickets and are trying to build time for a possible major airline job that pays more, has job security, more time off, and a good retirement. Some bush-type flying is more demanding than flying the big jets. Bush flying should pay more than a 747 captain, but, of course, the revenue is not there to pay that kind of money to a bush pilot. Aircraft insurance is out of sight in Alaska because of tough conditions and so many unimproved landing areas.

This is not to say that pilots cannot be trained to fly safely in these conditions. My dad came to Alaska in a WWI training plane and throughout his career had an excellent safety record. Sometimes he was criticized as a fair-weather pilot but he survived to a natural death while so many of his fellow pilots didn't make it. Even so, he made many historical flights. My brother and I had the benefit of his experience and preaching. We never crashed an airplane. Once, when I was getting ready to leave in a Cessna with a big load in questionable weather, he opened the door after the engine was running. He said, "Remember, always bring the airplane back". I believe that if you have a "mind-set" like that and you really do believe that the most important thing is to always bring the airplane back -- and I don't mean on a truck -- then, you will always bring the airplane back. His preaching sometimes would irritate me but, boy, that one really stuck with me. When you're young, you think you can handle any situation.

Did you teach your children to fly?

I didn't have an instructor rating when my kids soloed but I guess I taught them quite a bit, as my dad did for me. I sold my Widgeon to my son Kurt who flies for American based in Boston and lives in New Hampshire. My other son, Kent, also flies for American and is based in Boston. My daughter Kim is a flight attendant for Alaska airlines and lives in the Seattle area. In 1999 my brother Richard bought a Stearman to re-create and commemorate the 75th anniversary of the first flight between Anchorage and Fairbanks in 1924 by our father in a J1 Hisso Standard. It was going to be a family thing but it exploded into a big deal in Alaska. We were even allowed to take off at the original site that then was on the edge of town but now is midtown after they took down a flag pole, some fencing and filled in a ditch. It was a little tight getting in there for the takeoff. My son Kurt just bought the Stearman and on his way back to New Hampshire flew around Minnesota, where his grandfather grew up and learned to fly. It took three generations to make a full circle.

Next: Glacier Flying Tips from Merrill Wien